I bought my first category romances from thrift stores; partly because I was looking for out-of-print titles, but also because I was embarrassed to buy them from bookstore clerks who might recognize me. Over the years that I've been reading romance, I've come to the conclusion that categories remain one of the most fertile sources for good writing in the genre and now I buy them without apology. A Hero for Sophie Jones is an excellent example of the kind of gold to be found in them thar' shelves.
Author Christine Rimmer is a veteran, as her long list of previous titles shows, and it's immediately obvious from page 1. The opening scene of the story introduces the main characters Sophie B. Brown, proprietress of the Mountain Star resort, and Sinclair ("Sin") Riker, hot-shot real estate developer whose family once owned the property sets the stage (literally, since the scene takes place in the resort's barn which is used as a community movie theater), and, through the skillful use of POV, gives a sense of what kind of people they are.
At first, I was afraid that they would be cookie-cutter romance types. The Man "Tall. Dark. Delectably menacing." He has "mesmerizing" eyes and "an aura" that warns and attracts at the same time. The Woman "sweet as a milkmaid." She is captivating, "with those big eyes and that sunny smile, all that bronze hair and white lace showing beneath the hem of her skirt." But the conflicts that will drive the rest of the story are also introduced here: this sweet lady is no fool generous, impulsive, receptive but smart enough to be aware at some level that a man like this does not take a gratuitous interest in a woman like her. Similarly, Sinclair Riker is a tough player determined to achieve an objective that is not in Sophie's best interest, yet he is puzzled at, annoyed with, and unable to ignore, the visceral attraction he feels toward her.
The story itself will be familiar to most: wounded hero with a painful past thinks he can find satisfaction by exercising power, only to find that it's the love of a warm, compassionate woman that he really craves. Plucky, innocent heroine gathers together a surrogate family who loyally support and defend her, and must make painful choices when it becomes clear that the plans of the man she's come to love threaten their livelihood.
Sophie's "immediate family," employees of the ranch, are supplemented by the extended Jones family (many of whom have their own books this one is part of a series, "The Jones Gang"), who have adopted Sophie as one of their own. There is lots of feel-good family-type interaction which showcases Sophie's gift for relationships and makes it painfully clear to Sinclair how hopelessly mismatched he and Sophie would be as a couple. So far, so standard.
What distinguishes this story is the level of psychological insight displayed by the writer and the lovely way she dramatizes the characters' discovery that they are more like each other than they know.
When Sophie learns the truth about Sinclair (through the vengeful interference of Sinclair's former fiancιe) she is, of course, devastated. Sophie sees herself as a victim; ashamed of her own eagerness and gullibility, she readily accepts Sinclair's own assessment of himself as a vile deceiver.
It takes some hard words from "Uncle" Oggie, the Jones Gang patriarch, to challenge her self-image. The reader feels Sophie's outrage when Oggie suggests that Sophie did not love Sinclair enough and that she let him down by letting him go without attempting to resolve their differences. This suggestion, taken together with the previously contrasted characters of Sophie and Sinclair, are enough to have the reader quivering in feminist outrage.
Is the author seriously trying to imply that this compassionate, self-sacrificing earth-mother should overlook and accept the hero's ruthless duplicity? Fortunately, the author has a much more sophisticated intention, which is made explicit several chapters later in an encounter between Sophie and Sinclair which cuts to the heart of the problem that unites them even as it threatens to keep them apart.
It's not until the end of the story that the reader finally becomes aware of just how cleverly these apparently stock characters have been fleshed out. Both Sinclair and Sophie have unexpected facets which the reader discovers through the characters' growing self-awareness.
Did I forget to mention the sensitive and sexy love scenes? These characters enjoy a relationship that is as deliciously physical as it is deeply emotional. Even though they come together almost at once, their encounters are believable and appropriate; the author doesn't waste any of the reader's time with false coyness.
All of this, together with polished, confident writing, and a backlist containing the stories of other characters in the series a lot of bigger books don't offer as much. I am happy to recommend A Hero for Sophie Jones, and I'll be checking out the thrift stores for that backlist while I'm waiting to ask proudly and loudly at the bookstore for any of her future titles.